FEATURES | summer 2004
|From top: Carville and Stephanopoulos in The War Room; Ondi Timoner shooting DIG!; Zia McCabe of The Dandy Warhols (DIG!) photo:Vasco Lucas Nunes; Shirley Chisholm (Chisholm '72: Unbought & Unbossed) photo: Rose Greene; Elaine Stritch (Elaine Stritch at Liberty) photo: HBO
Female directors rule the hot nonfiction film market --
except on the big screen
During the past two years, the documentary film has emerged from the margins and vaulted onto the cultural map, the box office charts and many critics’ 10-best lists. Overnight, it seemed, the movie-going/DVD-renting public awoke to the possibility of recorded real life being no less packed with entertainment value than fiction movies.
Documentaries could be heartwarming (“Spellbound”), horrifying (“Capturing the Friedmans”), gorgeous (“Winged Migration”), politically complicated and dismaying (“The Fog of War”) or blustering and satiric (“Bowling for Columbine”).
As a form, the documentary is a world apart from the game-show-like structure of reality TV. But contrived, crass and sadistic as they are, reality shows contributed to the rise of serious documentaries, creating an appetite for watching ordinary people react, on-screen, with real fear, real tears, real anger and even real laughter.
The new visibility is a boon to women filmmakers who, for over three decades, have thrived in the documentary field as they still do not in Hollywood or the indie world. According to the Directors Guild of America statistics, female directors logged 7.4 percent of total member workdays on fiction features in 1999. Similarly, only three women — Sofia Coppola, Jane Campion and Lina Wertmüller — have been nominated for Oscars in the Best Director category, and none has won.
On the other hand, many documentaries directed by women have been nominated in the feature documentary category. In 1955 “Helen Keller In Her Story” was the first Oscarwinning documentary to be directed by a woman, Nancy Hamilton. Subsequent feature doc winners have included Sarah Kernochan’s “Marjoe” in 1972, Barbara Kopple’s “Harlan County, U.S.A.” and “American Dream,” Freida Lee Mock’s “Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision” and Victoria Mudd and Maria Florio’s “Broken Rainbow.”
Chris Hegedus, whose co-directing credits with partner D.A. Pennebaker include "The War Room" and the recent "Elaine Stritch at Liberty," got involved with documentary filmmaking in 1970.
“There was the feminist movement, anti-war protests and civil rights activism,” she says. “It was such a political time, and the new portable sync-sound 16mm camera rigs made it possible to just pick up a camera to film people’s stories. It was a way to be independent when Hollywood was so distant, especially for women.”
While 16mm technology was as key to the production of documentaries in the ’70s and ’80s as digital video is today, the expansion of cable and public television has been crucial for their exhibition. Unlike the Hollywood movie business, PBS and cable TV from their inception welcomed women as executives, producers and directors.
“PBS is part of the nonprofit world, and the majority of nonprofits are run by women,” says Cara Mertes, who runs “P.O.V.,” the prime showcase for independently produced documentaries on PBS.
She suggests that the reason women gravitate to documentary filmmaking — as well as to the larger nonprofit world — is that they place a higher priority on working for something they believe in than they do on money and power.
“At ‘P.O.V.,’ we focus on contemporary issue films that have strong directorial voices,” says Mertes, “and more than 60 percent of the documentaries I’ve programmed since I started here [in the 2000 season] were directed by women.”
Not surprisingly, “P.O.V.” kicks off its 17th season in June with a film (co-) directed by a woman, “Farmingville.”
“Women are willing to forgo big bucks and glory to work on something they’re committed to,” agrees HBO’s documentary powerhouse, Sheila Nevins (see article).
While acknowledging that economics factor into women’s success in the documentary field — less money also means less competition from men — Nevins refuses to define documentary filmmaking talent or commitment in terms of gender.
“It’s more complicated,” she says. “I might say that a certain subject needs an aggressive filmmaker or a sensiprevioustive filmmaker, but I don’t think of those traits as gendered.”
Nevertheless, some of the strongest films HBO will broadcast in the coming months are made by women, among them Ivy Meeropol’s “Heir to an Execution” and Maryann De Leo’s Academy Award-winning documentary short, “Chernobyl Heart.” Directors such as De Leo, who made three trips to Belarus to document the still-horrific effects of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, are on the front lines of adventurous global documentation.
“Women documentary directors are making films about everything and anything of interest,” says Diane Weyermann, director of documentary programming and funding at Sundance and, before that, at the Soros Documentary Fund.
“They aren’t restricted to what have traditionally been women’s issues or subjects. If I look at the international and U.S. documentaries supported by the Sundance or Soros funds, more than half have been directed or co-directed by women.”
At Sundance 2004, documentaries by women were, in many senses, all over the map. The winner in the documentary competition — where 10 out of 16 films were women-directed — was “DIG!,” Ondi Timoner’s rock psychodrama following two rival West Coast bands for seven years.
Other Sundance standouts were Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman’s “Born into Brothels,” a portrait of children of prostitutes living in Calcutta’s red-light district, and Jehane Noujaim’s “Control Room,” which went on to win the grand prize at Full Frame, the preeminent docsonly festival in the U.S.
Noujaim, an Egyptian-American, who previously teamed up with Hegedus on the doc “Startup.com,” went inside the broadcast headquarters of the Arab news channel Al-Jazeera during the Iraq War.
“Control Room” and “DIG!” will be released in theaters as well as on the Sundance Channel in the coming months. But if there’s a glitch in the story of women in documentary, it’s that, so far, the docs that have broken out at the box office are directed by men. And the heat around documentaries is attracting a more commercially minded breed of filmmaker.
“For the first time,” says “P.O.V.”’s Mertes, “I’m getting calls from middlemen — and they are always men. They’re producers’ reps and agents, and the filmmakers they represent also are white men. They smell money, although they don’t know quite yet how to get it.”
Rory Kennedy, whose devastating doc about a disturbed Mississippi child, “A Boy’s Life,” recently played on HBO and who is currently finishing another HBO film about the nuclear reactor at Indian Point, isn’t worried that serious documentarians will be crowded out.
“The cable industry opened an avenue for documentary, and now this [theatrical release] is another,” says Kennedy. “The more ways to get documentaries to audiences, the better.”
Comment on women making documentaries
Amy Taubin is a contributing editor for Film Comment and Sight and Sound magazines.